Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion (9780525644620)
When Auntie Clara can’t watch Daniel while his parents go to work at night, he goes along with them to their janitorial job. Daniel had been warm and snuggly in his bed, but had to get dressed and ride downtown. As his parents get their tools and equipment ready to go, they begin to tell him about The Paper Kingdom, which is the land that they clean every night. The throne room is a large room with a long table with papers strewn everywhere. The king is nowhere to be seen. His parents warn Daniel to not upset the queen and to be on the lookout for dragons who seem to like hiding in the bathrooms. Daniel gets upset when he sees how much cleaning work all of the kingdom has left for his parents. They encourage him to instead focus on becoming the paper king in the future and ruling differently.
In her author’s note, Rhee tells of her own childhood as a daughter of night janitors and being taken with them to work sometimes. The playful world created by the parents in the book is warm and loving. Yet it also subtly speaks to the role of power and wealth in the system in a way that children will understand. The hard work by Daniel’s parents is emphasized throughout the picture book with the parents doing physical labor and sneezing and rubbing sore muscles.
The illustrations also emphasize the extent of the workload of the parents, the sweat pouring from them and them often working on hands and knees. The imaginative playfulness is also shown with the red dragons lurking around.
A winning look at parents who work nights. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House.
Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez (9780823437542)
Inspired by her grandson’s picture of Super Octo, his grandmother decides to make octopus stew. So the two set off for the fish market where she gets the biggest octopus in the store. The boy gets a warning about octopi on his phone, but she won’t listen to him. She starts the water and gets out the biggest pot when they get home. As the two sit together in the living room, a strange noise comes from the kitchen. The octopus is now so big that it has blown the lid off the pot! It grabs grandmother and holds on to her. Now it’s up to her grandson to figure out how to get an octopus to let go!
Velasquez has won both a Pura Belpre and a Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award. Here, he writes a layered story that has a gatefold in the middle where the entire story is revealed to be just that, a tale being told. Cleverly, the book can be read both ways either as a story being shared aloud or as a full-on monster tale. However you choose to read it, the book has brisk pacing and plenty of action. It features a Latinx family with Spanish words and phrases sprinkled throughout the text.
The illustrations offer a dynamic superhero feel that works well, since the main character is a superhero fan. The action is captured with plenty of drama and the size of the octopus is enough to pose quite the threat.
Grab this picture book and squeeze it tight! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.
The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (9781534430686)
Ileana was a storyteller who collected stories, but stories were dangerous in Communist Romania. When her uncle disappears and their apartment was bugged, Ileana’s father destroyed her book of stories that she had been collecting for years in order to protect them all. Then her parents decide to send Ileana off to live with her maternal grandparents whom she has never met. The rural village is very different from the city that Ileana grew up in. After a period of anger, she gradually adjusts to life in there. But there is no escape from the brutality of the Romanian government. Ileana discovers her uncle, broken and ill, hiding nearby. When he is rescued by her grandparents, Ileana is given a valuable set of papers to protect. As the government tightens its hold on the country and on Ileana’s village, she finds herself at the center of her own story where she can choose to be a heroine or not.
Kramer’s middle-grade novel is nearly impossible to summarize because it is so layered and has such depth. The book focuses on the Communist period of Romania’s recent history and yet also has a timeless feel that pulls it back into a world of folklore and tales. The focus on storytelling is beautifully shown, illuminating not only Ileana’s mother’s story but the entire village’s history. There are stories that are dangerous, ones that connect and a single one that must not be told, but serves as the heartbeat of the entire community.
This book has a lot of moments that are almost tropes, like Ileana being sent to live with her grandparents in the mountains without knowing them at all. But in the hands of Kramer, these moments become opportunities to tell a story that is unique. Readers will be surprised again and again by the directions this novel takes and the stories it tells. It’s an entirely fresh and fascinating book.
Proof that stories are powerful, both to connect and to fight back. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.
The Traveler’s Gift by Danielle Davison, illustrated by Anne Lambelet (9781624147654)
Liam’s father was a sailor who always brought back stories of his time a sea. Liam loved the way his father’s stories could transport him. But when his father didn’t return from a voyage, Liam lost the ability to connect with stories any longer. It wasn’t until an unusual man with an amazing multi-colored beard arrived on a ship that Liam heard stories that could compare with his father’s. The man asked for a volunteer to accompany him on his next journey, and out of a crowd of people, he selected Liam. The two traveled together with the man showing Liam how to listen and how to see things. After some time together, the man reached the end of his travels and offered Liam a gift, a gift of stories and storytelling.
Davison celebrates the power of stories and storytelling in this picture book. She explores how important stories are to create connection and then how dark life can be when that bridge of stories is gone. The traveler is an interesting character with his gift of stories but also his touch of magic, his multi-colored beard telling the tales along with him. Seen as strange by some but awe-inspiring for someone like Liam who uses stories as a language.
The illustrations use color very cleverly. Liam goes from a life of full color to one of grays, blacks and whites, his world tinged with grief and loss. Everyone around him to are in muted colors, except for the Traveler, who arrives with his bright beard of greens, reds and yellows that offer space for stories to appear. At the end of the book, readers will see the gift of stories pass to Liam with a transfer of the colors as well. It’s beautifully and touching.
A great story all about the power of stories. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Page Street Kids.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (9780062748683)
The deep impact and life of librarian Pura Belpre is shown in this picture book biography. The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, Pura entered the job with a deep understanding of her native folklore and the power of storytelling with children. But the shelves of the library did not have any of the Puerto Rican tales. So Pura sets off to fix that as well as demonstrating ways to tell stories using puppets. Soon her first book is published and she can use it when she travels to different library branches to share her stories. Pura gets married to a musician and the two of them travel to different cities to perform his music and her stories. When her husband dies, Pura returns to New York City to discover that the stories she planted years ago have germinated something bigger.
Denise writes with a tone of wonder as she tells of this librarian who created her own way to tell the stories she loved. The text is infused with Spanish in a way that allows for comprehension and also clearly ties this book to its Puerto Rican subject. The text reads like poetry, gamboling across the page filled with activity and Pura’s own decisiveness.
The illustrations are rich and vibrant. They depict the library, Pura’s storytelling with children, and the subject matter of her stories. Filled with textures and deep colors, the illustrations pay close attention to the time period of the book and yet have a playful lightness to them as well.
A strong picture book biography of a remarkable librarian. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk (InfoSoup)
When the Kingdom of Morocco formed many years ago, it was built around fresh water sources and filled with storytellers. Then people lost their fear of the desert and the water fountains dried up and the storytellers left. A thirsty boy walked the city looking for water but found none. An old man called him closer and offered to tell him a story that would quench his thirst. At the end of his story, the little boy’s water cup was full. The story continued from one day to the next, each day resulting in water. Meanwhile, in the desert, a storm is forming created by a djinn looking to destroy Morocco. When the djinn arrives though, there is a way to battle it and bring water to the entire city. It just takes a young storyteller.
Turk beautifully weaves two stories together into one remarkable tale. The stories intertwine, showing the power of storytelling and its ability to refresh and quench thirsts. It is also about community and the vitality of shared stories and their power to change society. Beautifully, it is also about a boy learning a skill and a master storyteller showing his craft, plus it’s about a great story at its heart. There is attention to the flow of the tales here, how they work together, how repetition and rhythm are part of oral storytelling.
The illustrations are impressive, creating borders on the page that add richness. They also have a looseness to the images that is imaginative and allows the reader to fill in the blanks visually themselves. Even the text plays a visual role with different characters having differently colored fonts.
The power of story is brought to life in this rich picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Miss Brooks’ Story Nook by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Michael Emberley
A sequel to Miss Brooks Loves Books, this picture book celebrates story telling. Missy loves going to Miss Brook’s Story Nook right before school each day. She takes the long way to school, because otherwise she has to go past Billy Toomey’s house and he steals her hat and yells at her. Then one day at Story Nook, the power goes out so they have to tell their own stories. Missy though insists that she’s a reader not a storyteller. But soon she is telling her own story, inspired by Billy Toomey. It is the story of an ogre named Graciela who has a pet snake that escapes. The trick is that Missy needs to figure out a satisfying ending to her story of an ogre and a bully.
Bottner has created another engaging story filled with humor and clever solutions. Miss Brooks is inspiring with her enthusiasm for books and stories and the way she encourages the children to keep making their stories better. It’s a joy to see Missy tell her very creative story, struggle with some of it but persevere and create a satisfying tale for the entire class to enjoy.
Emberley’s illustrations add a lot of zing to the book. He captures moods so clearly in his characters from the jaunty excitement of Miss Brooks to Missy’s ever-changing moods. They are told through expressions and also body language.
Smart and funny, this is a book to inspire young readers to create their own stories just like Missy. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Random House.